It has been a good few years for Aquaman. Ever since 2009, he has been treated like one of the most intimidating badasses in the DC Universe, reinvigorating his comic book reputation. While being penned by Geoff Johns, he has been treated as a character that deserves respect and admiration, with immense power that was always there but not always taken seriously. What makes this fact more special is the knowledge that nothing had to be done to the classic concept to make him appealing. Aquaman didn’t need to lose a hand and take on a pirate motif in his fashion decisions. He didn’t need to gain a mystic hand with control of all water. Aquaman didn’t have to change characters completely, while inexplicably sharing the same name. All that needed to be done was to bring out what was good in Aquaman and bring those traits to light. It was the same as what could have been and should always be done with any character.
Why is it that Aquaman has been considered a joke, though? He is the king of Atlantis. He can bench press a tank and shrug off gunfire like a horse shrugs off flies. He rules two-thirds of the planet and is a god of everything that has ever come from the sea. These are traits that would grant many heroes a respectable status among readers, yet Aquaman, despite never showing any form of incompetence as a character, has been designated a joke. Sketches are made in his “honor” for the simple laugh of how perceivably useless Aquaman is. After all, what kind of hero fights crime from the ocean? That is just silly nonsense. Except it isn’t.
Aquaman has proven to be a storied character with a deep mythos all his own, living through character defining and soul-shattering moments even his heroic peers would be hardpressed to persevere through. Batman may have lost his parents when he was young and arguably lost his mind, but Aquaman lost his son to his arch-enemy and still continued to fight the good fight with his sanity intact.
So, I ask again, why is it that Aquaman has been considered a joke?
It is long been thought that the Superfriends television series was what did the damage to the character (particularly in later seasons) by concentrating solely on his telepathy and amphibious nature to provide demonstrations of his ability. However, the reasoning behind this perception might not necessarily be solely based on this show, though it does certainly mar personal perception of him. The true source of Aquaman’s degraded reputation may, in fact, be his environment.
It is a thing of note that one’s environment can help mold and define who they are. Many of the heroes in comics are framed by their environment in many significant ways; for instance, while Batman is influencing Gotham the city is likewise influencing Batman. Batman is a dark figure struggling with madness, acting as the conscience of a city. The city seems to corrupt Batman as he surgically and systematically attempts to clean it from the intangible concept of crime. Going further, you can see this environmental influence on other characters. Superman, the Man of Tomorrow, lives in a bright bustling city that is filled with technological marvels. Jack Knight, a.k.a. Starman, is a man in love with the past and Opal City is a city that reflects the past and present simultaneously, as if it was constructed out of gentle nostalgia.
Even when we have characters whose environments are cemented in space there is a mystique to the universe, as the space faring characters seem to represent man’s need to instill order and explore the unknown limits of the infinite. But Aquaman’s environment is not something as unknown as space or as familiar and personable as a city. Aquaman’s environment is the sea and the ocean. He is an earthbound hero in a location that humanity already believes we have complete control over. The ocean holds no mystique and no personality that we can identify with, so why should we respect a hero whose best demonstrations of ability are restricted to a specific ecosystem?
But that is the fallacy that deteriorates Aquaman’s reputation (which could also extend to Namor the Sub-Mariner were he more well known in mainstream consciousness.) We love space because it is something that is truly terrifying and mysterious as we have to bring a bit of our world with us to simply survive; a terrifying loneliness where we are isolated and are free from every earthly feeling of physical control. We delve into this mysterious thing known as space with a sense of adventure to the point of projecting intricate, almost mystical fantasies towards it that build upon each other. The ocean holds similar traits to space, where we need to bring our environment with us to explore it; yet common society doesn’t associate the same weighted mystique to the ocean because of its terrestrial nature.
We assume that there is no mystery to the ocean except the mythical concept of Atlantis so Aquaman stories concentrate on Atlantis. We assume that, because we live on land that the ocean cannot harm us and thusly cannot relate to it. We do not see the ocean as an uncaring, sleeping giant like our ancestors once did, but as something easily avoided and opposed (a thought which is proven wrong time and again.) So when applied to Aquaman, we can only assume he is a weak and useless hero that we can’t relate to, whose only place of protection is a mythical placed filled with people created with the sole purpose of creating a civilization for him to interact with, rather than to give him a place to develop as a character.
We have little idea of the philosophy and mentality of the Atlanteans because that is now what they were created for, like the people of Gotham, Opal, and Metropolis, and we do not care to explore the mysteries of the ocean like we do space so Aquaman is left defending a city that is there not because it has personality, but because it is there. However, as Geoff Johns has gotten the reigns of Aquaman, we have seen a great shift in that ideology in that we have seen the arrival of the creatures of the Trench, who represent the mystique and alien nature of the ocean, and the Throne of Atlantis story line which not only shows DC’s trust in Aquaman as a major player, but also enriches the perception of Atlantean culture.
The very thing that had been bringing Aquaman down (ie. his environmental tie to the ocean) has been used to great affect to now lift him up to the heights he is seeing now. By having the character not only interact with his environment, but have the environment interact with him the great aspects of the character evolve and grow. In the end, I am just happy to see that the rightful King of Atlantis is finally getting the respect he deserves as a character.